While known today for vengeful captain chasing a white whale, Herman Melville’s writing career began with a travelogue of his adventure on the Nuku Hiva and was his most popular work during his life. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life is a semi-autobiographical book that Melville wrote about his approximately 4 week stay that he “expanded” to 4 months in the narrative.
Melville begins his narrative when he describes the captain of the “Dolly” deciding to head to the Marqueas Islands and then events surrounding the ship’s arrival at the island as well as the actions of the French who were “taking possession” of it. Then Melville and a shipmate named Toby decide to ‘runaway’ to the valley of the Happar tribe and execute their plan when they get shore leave. Climbing the rugged cliffs of the volcanic island, they hide in the thick foliage from any searchers but realize they didn’t have enough food and soon Melville’s leg swells up slowing them down. Believing they arrived in the valley of the Happar, they make contact only to find themselves with the Typee. However the tribe embraces the two men and attempt to keep them amongst their number, but first Toby is able to ‘escape’ though Melville can’t help but think he’s been abandoned. Melville then details his experiences along amongst the cannibalistic tribe before his own escape with assistance of two other natives of the island from other tribes.
The mixture of narrative of Melville’s adventures and the anthropological elements he gives of the Typee make for an interesting paced book that is both engaging and dull. Though Melville’s lively descriptions of the events taking place are engaging, one always wonders if the event actually took place or was embellish or just frankly made up to liven up the overall tale. The addition of a sequel as an epilogue that described the fate of Toby, which at the time added credibility to Melville’s book, is a nice touch so the reader doesn’t wonder what happened to him.
Overall Typee is a nice, relatively quick book to read by one of America’s best known authors. While not as famous as Melville’s own Moby Dick, it turned out to be a better reading experience as the semi-autobiographical nature and travelogue nature gave cover for Melville to break into the narrative to relative unique things within the Typee culture.